Tag Archives: expertise

Book review: The Death of Expertise

The Conversation

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A new book expresses concern that the ‘average American’ has base knowledge so low that it is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong’.
shutterstock

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University

I have to start this review with a confession: I wanted to like this book from the moment I read the title. And I did. Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters is a motivating – if at times slightly depressing – read.

In the author’s words, his goal is to examine:

… the relationship between experts and citizens in a democracy, why that relationship is collapsing, and what all of us, citizens and experts, might do about it.

This resonates strongly with what I see playing out around the world almost every day – from the appalling state of energy politics in Australia, to the frankly bizarre condition of public debate on just about anything in the US and the UK.

Nichols’ focus is on the US, but the parallels with similar nations are myriad. He expresses a deep concern that “the average American” has base knowledge so low it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed”, passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong”. And this is playing out against a backdrop in which people don’t just believe “dumb things”, but actively resist any new information that might threaten these beliefs.

He doesn’t claim this situation is new, per se – just that it seems to be accelerating, and proliferating, at eye-watering speed.

Intimately entwined with this, Nichols mourns the decay of our ability to have constructive, positive public debate. He reminds us that we are increasingly in a world where disagreement is seen as a personal insult. A world where argument means conflict rather than debate, and ad hominem is the rule rather than the exception.

Again, this is not necessarily a new issue – but it is certainly a growing one.

Oxford University Press

The book covers a broad and interconnected range of topics related to its key subject matter. It considers the contrast between experts and citizens, and highlights how the antagonism between these roles has been both caused and exacerbated by the exhausting and often insult-laden nature of what passes for public conversations.

Nichols also reflects on changes in the mediating influence of journalism on the relationship between experts and “citizens”. He reminds us of the ubiquity of Google and its role in reinforcing the conflation of information, knowledge and experience.

His chapter on the contribution of higher education to the ailing relationship between experts and citizens particularly appeals to me as an academic. Two of his points here exemplify academia’s complicity in diminishing this relationship.

Nichols outlines his concern about the movement to treat students as clients, and the consequent over-reliance on the efficacy and relevance of student assessment of their professors. While not against “limited assessment”, he believes:

Evaluating teachers creates a habit of mind in which the layperson becomes accustomed to judging the expert, despite being in an obvious position of having inferior knowledge of the subject material.

Nichols also asserts this student-as-customer approach to universities is accompanied by an implicit, and also explicit, nurturing of the idea that:

Emotion is an unassailable defence against expertise, a moat of anger and resentment in which reason and knowledge quickly drown. And when students learn that emotion trumps everything else, it is a lesson they will take with them for the rest of their lives.

The pervasive attacks on experts as “elitists” in US public discourse receive little sympathy in this book (nor should these). Nichols sees these assaults as entrenched not so much in ignorance, more as being rooted in:

… unfounded arrogance, the outrage of an increasingly narcissistic culture that cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind.

Linked to this, he sees a confusion in the minds of many between basic notions of democracy in general, and the relationship between expertise and democracy in particular.

Democracy is, Nichols reminds us, “a condition of political equality”: one person, one vote, all of us equal in the eyes of the law. But in the US at least, he feels people:

… now think of democracy as a state of actual equality, in which every opinion is a good as any other on almost any subject under the sun. Feelings are more important than facts: if people think vaccines are harmful … then it is “undemocratic” and “elitist” to contradict them.

The danger, as he puts it, is that a temptation exists in democratic societies to become caught up in “resentful insistence on equality”, which can turn into “oppressive ignorance” if left unchecked. I find it hard to argue with him.

Nichols acknowledges that his arguments expose him to the very real danger of looking like yet another pontificating academic, bemoaning the dumbing down of society. It’s a practice common among many in academia, and one that is often code for our real complaint: that people won’t just respect our authority.

There are certainly places where a superficial reader would be tempted to accuse him of this. But to them I suggest taking more time to consider more closely the contexts in which he presents his arguments.

This book does not simply point the finger at “society” or “citizens”: there is plenty of critique of, and advice for, experts. Among many suggestions, Nichols offers four explicit recommendations.

  • The first is that experts should strive to be more humble.
  • Second, be ecumenical – and by this Nichols means experts should vary their information sources, especially where politics is concerned, and not fall into the same echo chamber that many others inhabit.
  • Three, be less cynical. Here he counsels against assuming people are intentionally lying, misleading or wilfully trying to cause harm with assertions and claims that clearly go against solid evidence.
  • Finally, he cautions us all to be more discriminating – to check sources scrupulously for veracity and for political motivations.

In essence, this last point admonishes experts to mindfully counteract the potent lure of confirmation bias that plagues us all.

It would be very easy for critics to cherry-pick elements of this book and present them out of context, to see Nichols as motivated by a desire to feather his own nest and reinforce his professional standing: in short, to accuse him of being an elitist. Sadly, this would be a prime example of exactly what he is decrying.

To these people, I say: read the whole book first. If it makes you uncomfortable, or even angry, consider why.

Have a conversation about it and formulate a coherent argument to refute the positions with which you disagree. Try to resist the urge to dismiss it out of hand or attack the author himself.

I fear, though, that as is common with a treatise like this, the people who might most benefit are the least likely to read it. And if they do, they will take umbrage at the minutiae, and then dismiss or attack it.

The ConversationUnfortunately we haven’t worked how to change that. But to those so inclined, reading this book should have you nodding along, comforted at least that you are not alone in your concern that the role of expertise is in peril.

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Vice Chancellor Barney Glover says universities must stand up for facts and the truth – ‘if we don’t, who will?’

The Conversation

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Intellectual inquiry and expertise are under sustained attack, says Barney Glover.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Barney Glover, Western Sydney University

This is an edited extract from a speech made by Vice Chancellor Barney Glover at the National Press Club on 1 March, 2017. The Conversation


We live in challenging times. Ours is an era in which evidence, intellectual inquiry and expertise are under sustained attack.

The phrases “post truth” and “alternative facts” have slipped into common use. Agendas have displaced analysis in much of our public debate. And we are all the poorer for it.

I want to deliver a passionate defence of the value of expertise and evidence. I will mount a case for facts as they are grounded in evidence, not as fluid points of convenience employed to cover or distort a proposition.

My plea to you all is this: let’s not deride experts, nor the value of expertise. Because in an era where extremists and polemicists seek to claim more and more of the public square, our need for unbiased, well-researched information has seldom been greater.

We must remind ourselves of how human progress has ever been forged. In this, academics and journalists have common cause. For how are we to fulfill our respective roles in a democracy if we don’t defend the indispensible role of evidence in decision-making?

Hostility towards evidence and expertise

In Australia and around the world, we’ve seen the emergence of a creeping cynicism – even outright hostility – towards evidence and expertise.

We saw this sentiment in the post-Brexit declaration by British Conservative MP, Michael Gove that “the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

And yet – as we strive to cure cancer; save lives from preventable disease; navigate disruption; lift living standards; overcome prejudice, and prevent catastrophic climate change – expertise has never been more important.

The turn that public debate has taken is a challenge to universities. As institutions for the public good, we exist to push the frontiers of knowledge. We enhance human understanding through methodical, collaborative, sustained and robust inquiry.

That doesn’t discount the wisdom of the layperson. And it doesn’t mean universities have all the answers. Far from it. But we are unequivocally the best places to posit the questions.

We are places structurally, intellectually, ethically and intrinsically premised on confronting society’s most complex and confounding problems. We are at the vanguard of specialist knowledge. And we are relentless in its pursuit. We have to be. Because – like the challenges we as institutions immerse ourselves in – the pace of change is unrelenting.

In universities, questioning is continuous, and answers are always provisional. The intensive specialisation, in-depth inquiry and measured analysis universities undertake is not carried-out in service of some ulterior motive or finite agenda.

In the conduct of research the finish-line is very rarely, if ever reached. There’s always more to learn, more to discover. The core objectives universities pursue can never be about any other agenda than the truth. There is no other, nor greater reward. So let’s not disparage expertise, or the critically important role of evidence and intellectual inquiry.

Instead, let’s try to understand its value to our country and its people. And, indeed, to the world.

Universities perform an essential role in society. We must stand up for evidence. Stand up for facts. Stand up for the truth. Because if we don’t, who will?

Universities’ role in the economy

Disruption is drastically refashioning the economy. It is reshaping the way we work, and reimagining the way we engage with each other in our local communities and globally.

In this constantly transforming environment – where major structural shifts in the economy can profoundly dislocate large segments of society – our universities perform a pivotal role.

Universities help us make the very best of disruption, ensuring we are able to “ride the wave”. And they are the institutions best equipped to buffer us against the fallout. This is particularly important in regions that have relied for decades on large-scale blue-collar industries.

Think Geelong in regional Victoria and Mackay in central Queensland. Look to Elizabeth in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Wollongong and Newcastle in New South Wales. And Launceston in Tasmania. Onetime manufacturing strongholds in carmaking, steel, timber and sugar.

These communities have been wrenched economically, socially and at the personal level by automation, offshoring and rationalisation. For places like these, universities can be a lifeline.

Internationally, the evidence is in. Former financier, Antoine van Agtmael and journalist, Fred Bakker look at this very scenario in their recent book, “The Smartest Places on Earth”.

They uncover a transformative pattern in more than 45 formerly struggling regional US and European economies; places they describe as “rustbelts” turned “brainbelts”.

Akron, Ohio is one of the most remarkable examples they cite. This midwestern city had four tyre companies disappear practically overnight. The then president of the University of Akron, Luis Proenza, reached out to those affected, rallying them to collaborate and encouraging them to transform.

Van Agtmael tells the story of what happened next. “What stayed in Akron”, he observes, “was the world class polymer research that has given us things like contact lenses that change colour if you have diabetes, tyres that can drive under all kinds of road conditions and hundreds more inventions.”

Akron, he continues, “now [has] 1,000 little polymer companies that have more people working for them than the four old tyre companies.”

This kind of transformation, at Akron and beyond, Van Agtmael remarks, is “university centric.”

“Each of these rustbelts becoming brain belts”, he concludes, “always have universities.” In places like those he describes, and many others around the world, universities and their graduates are leading vital processes of renewal within economies experiencing upheaval.

You may be surprised by the extent that this is happening in Australia, too.

Four-in-five startup founders are uni graduates

University graduates key to boosting startup economy. From http://www.shutterstock.com

Over the past decade, the startup economy has become part of Australia’s strategy for economic diversification and growth. Yet what has not been widely understood is the extent to which universities and their graduates are responsible for that growth.

Now, for the first time, Universities Australia and the survey group Startup Muster have taken a closer look at the data.

“Startup Smarts: universities and the startup economy”, confirms that universities and their graduates are the driving force in Australia’s startup economy.

It tells us that four-in-five startup founders in this country are university graduates. Many startups, too, have been nurtured into existence by a university incubator, accelerator, mentoring scheme or entrepreneurship course.

There are more than one-hundred of these programs dispersed widely across the country, with many on regional campuses.

They provide support, physical space and direct access to the latest research. They help to grow great Australian ideas into great Australian businesses.

This report confirms just how important the constant evolution, renewal and refining of course offerings at universities is.

We need to ensure that our programs equip our students and graduates for an uncertain future.

By the time today’s kindergarten students finish high school and are considering university study, startups will have created over half-a-million new jobs across the country. And this new sector of the economy – a sector indivisible from our universities – raised $568 million in 2016; 73% more than the previous year.

By the very nature of the reach of our universities, the benefits are not confined to our cities. We play a vital role to help regional Australians and farmers stake their claim in the startup economy too. The idea of the “silicon paddock”’ – using technology to take farm-based businesses to the markets of the world – is no longer a concept. It’s a reality.

Technology enables our regional entrepreneurs to stay in our regions; building and running businesses, investing locally without the need for long commutes or city relocations. And this, too, is very important; making sure nobody is left behind.

Extending knowledge beyond uni gates

Comprehending and overcoming the complex problems the world confronts, in my view, requires we defend the role of expertise and intellectual inquiry. That doesn’t mean universities are the last word on knowledge. To a large extent, it means rethinking the way knowledge is conveyed beyond university gates.

If universities don’t turn their minds to this issue, others will. And their motivations may not always be altruistic.

Take research, for instance. When the facts of a particular field of inquiry are under attack, the natural reaction among researchers might be to tighten-up their retort and hone the theoretical armory.

It is right to be rigorous and methodical in research. But in the broader communication of our research – in the public dialogue beyond “the lab” – I think universities have to guard against retreating to overly technical language that, perhaps inadvertently, sidelines all but a limited group of specialists

I don’t suggest that research can’t benefit or even be improved via a researcher’s consciousness of a particular, often very specific audience. Yet researchers who allow this consciousness to dominate the development of their work risk undermining their ability to tread new ground and challenge existing frontiers of knowledge.

Only by crossing borders can we come to something new. How many researchers’ discoveries have arisen from a subversion of discipline, practice or establishment? Virtually all, I would suggest.

Breaking down structural boundaries

Crossing borders also means we push other structural boundaries. Within universities, distinct discipline paradigms exist for good reason. They bring focus and in-depth intellectual lineage to a particular field.

But, increasingly, the complex problems we set out to solve don’t abide by the same boundaries. These questions demand expertise from many disciplines, working together and approaching the subject matter from different angles.

That is why universities are constantly refining their research and teaching programs and, increasingly, diffusing the borders that kept many of them separate. This is good for universities. It is good for the country. And it is good for our students, many of whom find their way into public service or politics.

These graduates bring a greater understanding of all facets of the complex questions they confront throughout their working lives.

Interdisciplinarity is, I think, a powerful antidote against ideological intransigence and prejudice. Australian universities – particularly in their research – have a growing track-record in this regard.

Many of our very best research institutes are characterised by a fusion of disciplines where, for example, sociologists, political scientists, spatial geographers, and economists collaborate on a common research objective.

The work that emerges from this research is almost always compelling because it is multi-faceted. It extends itself beyond its constituent research community.

Cross-disciplinarity has also expanded at the teaching level of our universities over the past few decades. But a constrained funding environment can provoke a reduction in options.

We must, however, keep our viewfinder broad, because reductionism doesn’t match the expansionist, multi-strand trends emerging in the broader economy. It’s a disconnect.

As universities, as a society, we must be mindful of how important it is to ask questions, to follow our curiosity, to challenge boundaries and to never rest with the answers.

• Read the full speech here.

Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The problem of false balance when reporting on science

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

How do you know the people billed as science experts that you see, hear and read about in the media are really all that credible? Or have they been included just to create a perception of balance in the coverage of an issue?

It’s a problem for any media and something the BBC’s Trust is trying to address in its latest report on science impartiality in programming.

As part of ongoing training, staff, particularly in non-news programs, were told that impartiality is not just about including a wide range of views on an issue, as this can lead to a “false balance”. This is the process of providing a platform for people whose views do not accord with established or dominant positions simply for the sake of seeming “balanced”.

The BBC has been criticised before for “false balance” and there are reports now that certain climate change sceptics are banned from BBC News, although this is denied by the BBC.

It’s understandable that such false balance could grow from a desire to seem impartial, and particularly so since public broadcasters such as the BBC and the ABC in Australia are sensitive to claims of imbalance or bias.

Couple this with the need to negotiate the difficult ground of expert opinion, authentic balance and audience expectation, not to mention the always delicate tension between the imperatives of news and entertainment, and it hardly seems surprising that mistakes are made. An investigation this year found the ABC breached its own impartiality standards in its Catalyst program last year on statins and heart disease.

Finding the right balance

How then can journalists decide the best way to present a scientific issue to ensure accurate representation of the views of the community of experts? Indeed, how can any of us determine if what we are seeing in the media is balanced or a misrepresentation of expert opinion?

Hard to find the right balance.
Flickr/Paxson Woelber , CC BY

As I have written elsewhere, it is important to not confuse the right to be heard with an imagined right to be taken seriously. If an idea fails to survive in the community of experts, its public profile should diminish in proportion to its failure to generate consensus within that community.

A common reply to this is that science isn’t about consensus, it’s about the truth. This is so, but to use a consensus as evidence of error is fallacious reasoning.

While it’s true that some presently accepted notions have in the past been peripheral, the idea that simply being against the majority view equates to holding your intellectual ground in the best tradition of the enlightenment is ludicrous.

If all views are equal, then all views are worthless.

Were I to propose an idea free of testing or argument, I could not reasonably expect my idea to be as credible as those subject to rigorous experimentation and collaborative review. If such equality did exist then progress would be impossible, since progress is marked by the testing and rejection of ideas.

Defining an expert

In the case of science, this testing is the process of experimentation, data analysis and peer review. So if someone – scientist or otherwise – has not worked and published in an area, then they are not an expert in that area.

The first imperative for a journalist covering any story is to determine exactly in what field the issue best sits and then to seek advice from people who work and publish in that field.

Knowing how the issue fits into the broader picture of scientific investigation is very useful in determining this. It is one of the reasons that good science journalism follows from having journalists with some training in science.

Such a selection process, performed transparently, is an excellent defence against charges of bias.

Avoiding false balance

False balance can also be created by assuming that a person from outside the field (a non-expert) will somehow have a perspective that will shed light on an issue, that the real expert is too “caught up in the details” to be objective.

But suggesting that an expert is naive usually indicates an attempt at discrediting rather than truth seeking. Credibility is more about process than authority, and to be a recognised expert is to work within the process of science.

Also, if a piece of science is being criticised, we should ask if the criticism itself has been published. It’s not enough that someone with apparent authority casts doubt as this is simply an appeal to authority – an appeal that critics of mainstream science themselves use as a warrant to reject consensus.

A second journalistic imperative would be to recognise that not all issues are binary.

Coins may have two sides but not so every science issue.
Flickr/monkeyc net, CC BY-NC-SA

The metaphor that a coin has two sides is a powerful one, and the temptation to look at both sides of an issue is naturally strong. But the metaphor also assumes an equal weighting, and that both sides present the same space for discussion.

Proof and evidence

When an issue is genuinely controversial, the burden of proof is shared between opposing views. When a view is not mainstream, say that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the public, the burden of proof sits with those promoting that view.

In such cases, as Christopher Hitchens succinctly put it:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Attempting to dishonestly shift the burden of proof is a common device in the push to have young earth creationism taught in science classrooms.

The idea of “teaching both sides” or that students should be allowed to make up their own minds seems again like a recourse to the most basic ideas of a liberal education, but is in reality an attempt to bypass expert consensus, to offload the burden of proof rather than own it.

The fact is, that for issues such as creationism, vaccination and that climate change is occurring and is a function of human activity, it’s not about journalists suppressing views, it’s about quality control of information.

Stay with the issue

A classic means of muddying the waters is to employ straw man arguments, in which the point at issue is changed to one more easily defended or better suited to a particular interest. Politicians are adept at doing this, dodging hard questions with statements like “the real issue is” or “what’s important to people is”.

An expert versus who?

Deniers of climate science often change the issue from global warming to whether or not consensus is grounds for acceptance (it alone is not, of course), or focus on whether a particular person is credible rather than discuss the literature at large.

The anti-vaccine lobby talks about “choice” rather than efficacy of health care.
Young earth creationists talk about the right to express all views rather than engage with the science. Politicians talk about anything except the question they were asked.

The third imperative, therefore, is to be very clear as to what the article or interview is about and stick to that topic. Moving off topic negates the presence of the experts (the desired effect) and gives unsubstantiated claims prominence.

The impartiality checklist

The best method of dealing with cranks, conspiracy theorists, ideologues and those with a vested interest in a particular outcome is the best method for science reporting in general:

  • insist on expertise
  • recognise where the burden of proof sits
  • stay focused on the point at issue.

If the media sticks to these three simple rules when covering science issues, impartiality and balance can be justifiably asserted.

Correction: This article was amended on July 17, 2014 to include a report of the BBC’s denial that a climate change sceptic was banned from the public broadcaster.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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The Rejection of Expertise

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2015, Vol 36 No 3 p.36,  titled ‘Who needs to Know?’ It has since been republished in the Australian Doctor magazine 30 October 2015. 
The essay is based on a talk presented to the Victorian Skeptics in May 2015 ).

Anti-vaccination campaigner, Meryl Dorey is on record as saying that we should ‘do our own research’ instead of accepting what the doctors and other qualified experts tell us.  Seasoned skeptics will be aware that ‘Do your own research!’ is a common retort by cranks and conspiracy theorists to those who dare to doubt their claims.  It is a convenient escape hatch they use when trying to win a debate without the bothersome burden of providing their own evidence.

Of course, what they mean by this exhortation is not to do any actual scientific or medical research.  It takes a bit of tertiary education in the relevant field to be able to do that.  For them, ‘research’ means nothing more than googling for an hour or so on the Internet. They naively equate such googling with the years of study and experience it takes to become a qualified expert.  Their message is that anybody with internet access can become an instant but unqualified expert on anything.  Or worse still, that expertise doesn’t even count – all opinions are equal.

The reality is that googling is a notoriously unreliable source of information – there are sound reasons why Wikipedia is not allowed to be cited as a source in university assignments.  The problem is that without expertise in the field in question, few googlers are capable of knowing which sources are reliable and which aren’t.  Anything found on the internet becomes ‘knowledge’.  Mere opinions become ‘facts’.

Another problem is that googlers are often unaware of the wider knowledge context of the specific pieces of information they have found on the internet. In contrast, experts are as much aware of what they don’t know as what they do know.  As Professor Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol puts it:

‘Here is the catch: to know how much more there is to know requires knowledge to begin with.  If you start without knowledge, you also do not know what you are missing out on.’

This paradox gives rise to a famous result in experimental psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning, it refers to a study they published in 1999. This study found that people who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. This is almost more dangerous than complete ignorance, because unlike Donald Rumsfeld, they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Professor Tom Nichols, a US national security expert wrote last year about the ‘death of expertise’; a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of divisions between professionals and amateurs, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers – between those with any expertise in an area and those with none at all.  He sees this situation as not only a rejection of knowledge, but also the processes of knowledge acquisition – a rejection of science and other pursuits of rationality.

Nichols is particularly critical of otherwise intelligent people who are ‘doing their own research’ on the internet and second-guessing their doctors by refusing to vaccinate their children, leading to an entirely avoidable resurgence of dangerous infectious diseases such as whooping cough and measles.

So how did it all come to this sorry state of affairs?  I think that there are basically four contributing factors: the blurring of facts and opinions; a misunderstanding of democracy; a misunderstanding of the Argument from Authority; and the dissipation of media accountability.  I will now discuss each of these factors in turn and then outline some benefits of listening to experts.

Blurring facts and opinions

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a fact is a state of affairs that is the case.  The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability; that is, whether it can be demonstrated to correspond to experience.  Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or experiment.  In other words, a fact is that which makes a true statement true.  For instance, the statement ‘It is raining’ describes the fact that it actually is raining.  The rain that falls can be objectively measured in a rain gauge – it is not just a matter of opinion.

On the other hand, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective, such as ‘It is raining too much’.  As Plato said: ‘opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance’.

The last few decades have seen the growth of a postmodernist notion that truth is culturally relative and that all opinions are equal.  What’s worse is a gradual blurring of the important distinction between facts and opinions.  A disturbing feature of the public debate about climate change is the confusion between science and policy.  Because they conflict with some political policies, there is a tendency for the findings of climate scientists to be treated as ‘just another opinion’.  This is a marked change from a few decades ago, when the findings of epidemiologists about the links between smoking and cancer were widely accepted as facts rather than opinions.

Misunderstanding democracy

Reducing the influence of experts is sometimes mistakenly described as ‘the democratisation of ideas’.  Democracy is a system of government – it is not an equality of opinions.  Whilst the right of free speech prevents governments from suppressing opinions, it does not require citizens to treat all opinions equally or even take them into account.  Equal rights do not result in equal knowledge and skills.  As Professor Brian Cox has said:

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Deakin University philosopher Dr. Patrick Stokes has argued the problem with ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is that it has become shorthand for ‘I can say or think whatever I like’ without justification; and that disagreement is somehow disrespectful.  Stokes suggests that this attitude feeds into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Professor Michael Clark of LaTrobe University gives an example of a public meeting recently, when a participant asked a question that referred to some research, a senior public servant replied: ‘Oh, everyone has a scientific study to justify their position, there is no end to the studies you could cite, I am sure, to support your point of view.’  Clark describes this is a cynical statement, where there are no absolute truths and everyone’s opinion must be treated as equally valid.  In this intellectual framework, the findings of science can be easily dismissed as one of many conflicting views of reality.

Misunderstanding the Argument from Authority

A common response from cranks and conspiracy theorists (and even some skeptics) to citations of expertise is ‘that’s just the argument from authority fallacy’.  Such a response ignores the obvious fact that all scientific papers and other forms of academic writing are chock full of citations of experts.  The notion that the written outputs of the world’s universities and scientific institutions are all based on a logical fallacy is preposterous.  Anybody who thinks that has clearly not thought through the implications of what they are saying.

The Argument from Authority is often misunderstood to be a fallacy in all cases, when this is not necessarily so.  The argument becomes a fallacy only when used deductively, or where there is insufficient inductive strength to support the conclusion of the argument.

The most general form of the deductive fallacy is:

Premise 1: Source A says that statement p is true.

Premise 2: Source A is authoritative.

Conclusion: Therefore, statement p is true.

Even when the source is authoritative, this argument is still deductively invalid because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (i.e. an authoritative claim can turn out to be false). This fallacy is known as ‘Appeal to Authority’.

The fallacy is compounded when the source is not an authority on the relevant subject matter. This is known as Argument from false or misleading authority.

Although reliable authorities are correct in judgments related to their area of expertise more often than laypersons, they can occasionally come to the wrong judgments through error, bias or dishonesty. Thus, the argument from authority is at best a probabilistic inductive argument rather than a deductive argument for establishing facts with certainty. Nevertheless, the probability sometimes can be very high – enough to qualify as a convincing cogent argument. For example, astrophysicists tell us that black holes exist. The rest of us are in no position to either verify or refute this claim. It is rational to accept the claim as being true, unless and until the claim is shown to be false by future astrophysicists (the first of whom would probably win a Nobel Prize for doing so). An alternative explanation that astrophysicists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to deceive us all would be implausible and irrational.

An artist’s depiction of a black hole

As the prominent British environmental activist Mark Lynas has said ‘…if an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.’

Thus there is no fallacy entailed in arguing that the advice of an expert in his or her field should be accepted as true, at least for the time being, unless and until it is effectively refuted. A fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the expert is infallible and that therefore his or her advice must be true as a deductive argument, rather than as a matter of probability.  Criticisms of cogent arguments from authority can actually be a rejection of expertise, which is a fallacy of its own.

The Argument from Authority is sometimes mistakenly confused with the citation of references, when done to provide published evidence in support of the point the advocate is trying to make. In these cases, the advocate is not just appealing to the authority of the author, but providing the source of evidence so that readers can check the evidence themselves if they wish. Such citations of evidence are not only acceptable reasoning, but are necessary to avoid plagiarism.

Expert opinion can also constitute evidence and is often accepted as such by the courts.  For example, if you describe your symptoms to your doctor and he or she provides an opinion that you have a certain illness, that opinion is evidence that you have that illness. It is not necessary for your doctor to cite references when giving you his or her expert opinion, let alone convince you with a cogent argument. In some cases, expert opinion can carry sufficient inductive strength on its own.

Dissipation of media accountability

I have no doubt that the benefits of the internet generally outweigh the costs.  However, there are some downsides that need be considered rather than just glossed over.  An obvious negative is the decline of newspapers and competent professional journalism.  Specialist science or medical journalists are a rarity these days.  Generalist journalists often get their science stories wrong, or engage in misleading false balance – the equating of professional expertise with amateur ignorance.

Another problem is the blurring of the distinction between journalism and blogging – and I say this as a blogger myself.  Unlike bloggers, journalists are subject to professional standards and editorial control. Some bloggers are anonymous, which removes their accountability to even their own readers for the accuracy of what they write.

There is a risk that when non-experts google, they are inclined to give equal weight to information from both professional journalists and amateur bloggers, regardless of its reliability and accuracy.

Benefits of expertise

Whilst experts are human and can mistakes, they have a pretty good batting average compared to laypersons.  The advice that experts provide is far more likely to be true than advice from non-experts in the field in question.  This has obvious benefits for society as a whole, for example in terms of public health and safety, environmental protection and managing the economy.  There are good reasons why we don’t let amateurs design aircraft, bridges and tall buildings.  But there are also some major benefits for the individual in listening to advice from experts as opposed to non-experts.

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For instance, if you trust your doctor, you’re actually more likely to do better when you’re sick, according to a study recently published by General Hospital Psychiatry.  This study, of 119 people with either breast, cervical, intestinal or prostate cancer, found that from three months following diagnosis, those patients who did not trust their doctors were not only more distressed but also more physically disabled.  They were less likely, for example, to be able to go for long walks or take care of themselves.  Patients who felt anxious about being rejected and abandoned suffered the most from not trusting their doctors.

Trusting your doctor has clear health benefits. You’ll be more likely to try new drugs, follow your treatment plan (jointly agreed with your trustworthy doctor), share important medical information, take preventative measures (e.g. screening) and have better-controlled diabetes and blood pressure.

Up to half of the failures in treatment reported by patients are due to not following the regime suggested by doctors.  This increases the risk of hospitalisation and extended ill health.  Another study at the University of California has found a small but statistically significant association between how much patients trusted their doctors and how much their symptoms improved within two weeks (allowing for different factors that could have influenced the outcome).

As Professor Michael Clark has said, people who use Dr. Google to diagnose their symptoms before visiting an actual doctor, sometimes ask to be tested for diseases they do not have, or waste time seeking a second opinion because they are convinced that their ‘research’ has led them to a correct diagnosis. If it were really that easy, would doctors have to spend all those years in medical school? Prof. Clark has also said that:

“Using Google to find the answer to Trivial Pursuit questions is not the same as researching a complex question. Experts do have skills and one of those is the ability to use high quality sources, up to date theoretical frameworks, and critical thinking based on their experience in a particular field. This is why an expert’s answers are going to be more accurate and more nuanced than a novice.”

References

Clark, M., and Lawler, S., ‘Why we need to listen to the real experts in science’.  The Conversation. January 1, 2015.

Harding, T., ‘Argument from authority’. The Logical Place. June 23, 2013.

Hinnen et al. ‘Lower levels of trust in one’s physician is associated with more distress over time in more anxiously attached individuals with cancer’. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2014 Jul-Aug;36(4):382-7.

Lewandowsky, S., and Pancost, R., ‘Are you a poor logician?‘ Logically, you might never know’. The Conversation. November 6, 2014.

Nichols, T., ‘The Death Of Expertise’. The Federalist, January 17, 2014.

Stokes, P., ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion’. The Conversation. October 5, 2012.

Thom, D.H., et al. ‘Measuring Patients’ Trust In Physicians When Assessing Quality Of Care’.  Health Aff (Millwood), University of California. 2004 Jul-Aug;23(4):124-32.

Further reading

Nichols, T., ‘The Death Of Expertise’. Oxford University Press, 2017.

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Trust me, I’m a doctor… of sorts

The Conversation

Rachael Sharman, University of the Sunshine Coast

Qualifications and their associated titles allow for quick identification of appropriately trained or recognised experts within a given field. They bestow legitimacy on the information provided to people looking for expert advice.

But how does the average person decide who to reasonably trust when it seems anyone can call themselves a doctor?

Traditionally, the title doctor was reserved for medical doctors, or scholars who’d completed postgraduate training to a doctoral level, and were recognised by their peers as an expert in their field.

Indeed, a number of dictionary definitions appear to support these two categories.

Free for all

But doctor creepage has been hastening with extraordinary stealth over the last few years, particularly within health care.

I can clearly remember assuming as an adolescent that chiropractors were doctors who specialised in a particular medical domain (back care) because the title Dr preceded their name.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised that Dr Chiropractor or Dr Osteopath or Dr Vet were all equally deceptive for implying that people using the title are either medical doctors, or substantially more qualified than an undergraduate degree.

To be fair, most medical doctors also have an undergraduate degree, but that involves six or seven years of tertiary training, similar to that undertaken in total by a doctor of philosophy degree.

And I’m not suggesting that members of the aforementioned professions haven’t undergone university training suited to their practice (I’ll come to that substantially more serious problem later), but there appears to be no legal impediment to a number of bachelor degree graduates using the title doctor.

In fact, I couldn’t easily find the answer to the question of whether there’s any legal reason why plumbers, hairdressers or retired beekeepers can’t use the title!

Surely this situation is confusing because most people would assume a particular type of training (medical), or level of training (recognised expert in their field) goes hand-in-hand with this title.

Training and expertise

But there’s an even more serious related problem here, and that involves the questionable practice of representing certain kinds of “tertiary training” as comparable to university-level qualifications.

This practice is also becoming increasingly rampant in the health-care field.

Representing certain kinds of ‘tertiary training’ as comparable to university-level qualifications has become rampant in health care. Truthout.org/Flickr

I was intrigued recently by a workshop reported by the press as being run by a “world renowned expert” allegedly “recognised as one of the foremost experts in the biochemistry of ADHD and ASD” (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders).

I wanted to discover more about this presenter, whose name was followed by the letters CNC.

After consulting the individual’s website, I discovered that CNC stood for Certified Nutrition Consultant, a qualification I had not previously heard.

And here’s a tip from that experience for punters: if you type the name of a qualification into Google, and the first site in the list is Quackwatch, you’re probably justified in being suspicions about the validity of that certification.

In this case, I was unable to find any mention that the person in question had engaged in any university-level education whatsoever. Although, to be fair, perhaps she has but chooses not to clearly advertise her education on her website.

While this particular CNC-qualified expert has written a couple of books and frequently appeared in the media, I couldn’t find any trace of her authoring a published study, review, or even having presented a basic scientific overview of her “research” in any kind of peer-reviewed journal.

When I tried to find out how one obtains registration as a CNC, I eventually found myself at its supposed credentialing website, which appeared to have some sort of requirement for tertiary training, but not necessarily at university-level.

Are you qualified?

This brings me to my final point: a number of qualifications in complementary medicine cannot be obtained from a public university because, quite frankly, these institutions won’t touch them.*

Indeed, training in a number of alternative health domains is not even vaguely scientific or evidence-based, despite the pretence of being so. This has led to a variety of colleges popping up offering all sorts of questionable “qualifications”.

Now, I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with people seeking alternative health options. But I dare say there’s very deliberate confusion being created by credentialing practices by these colleges, that attempt to mimic traditional markers of university-level training or expertise, presumably for personal or professional gain.

For those seeking a specific type or level of recognised expertise, the inflation of qualifications via the appropriation of the title Dr is at best unhelpful, and, at worst, deliberately disingenuous.

And those seeking a particular basis of advice (alternative versus scientific, for instance) have the unhappy task of navigating a conflation of scientific and alternative health qualifications from questionable tertiary training colleges.

Apart from the confusion this creates, it suggests level of insecurity among some health-care practitioners who may be attempting to establish their legitimacy through stealth and deceit.

* This article has been edited to remove an incorrect claim that Australian public universities do not offer bachelor’s degrees in naturopathy. Students can undertake a three-year Bachelor in Clinical Sciences at Southern Cross University with a double major in naturopathy and complementary medicine. There is also a three-year Bachelor of Applied Science in naturopathic studies at the University of Western Sydney.

The ConversationRachael Sharman is Lecturer in Psychology at University of the Sunshine Coast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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